The Researchfish Saga continues

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on May 19, 2022 by telescoper

You may recall that I blogged here and here about a software platform called Researchfish and the heavy-handed reaction response to criticism by the provider of this “service”, a company called Interfolio, and the Government organization UK Research and Innovation that harvests the data thereby collected. In its response to Interfolio’s apparent misuse of data and bullying of academics who dared to express negative opinions about Researchfish – which I would say, based on my own experiences (admittedly several years ago), is a very poorly designed system – UKRI made a sort of non-apology that managed to make matters worse.

A couple of days ago, in response to a Freedom of Information request, UKRI released correspondence between itself and Infosys that shows not only that UKRI knew about the bullying by Infosys but actively encouraged it. The story is covered in full by Research Professional so I shall comment on briefly here.

Here’s an example from UKRI which talks about taking “disciplinary” action against someone for criticizing Researchfish on Twitter (even though they subsequently apologized and deleted the tweet) and goes on to list their grant awards, presumably in order to facilitate sanctions against the individual:

Here’s another that claims that bullying by Researchfish “set the right tone”:

Unbelievable. I bet the redacted bits are even worse!

It’s a shocking indictment of the culture at UKRI that they are prepared to behave in such a way, conniving in threats against the community it is supposed to be supporting. Moreover, Interfolio seems to be keener to police comments about Researchfish than it is to make improvements to its service. It can’t be healthy for researchers in the UK to have their freedom of speech stifled to protect a software company’s reputation.

The brevity and informality of the emails between UKRI and Infotech suggests they have a very cosy relationship. Does anyone know anything about the tendering process by which Interfolio acquired its contract with UKRI?

A Major Merger in Irish Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 18, 2022 by telescoper

Taking a short break from examination matters I just read a news item announcing a big shake-up in Irish research funding. As part of a new Research and Innovation Strategy, called Impact 2030, it seems the Irish Research Council (RC) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) are to merge to produce a single entity, perhaps as early as next year.

Changes are much needed, especially for science. Science in Ireland is in a dire state of under-investment, especially in basic (i.e. fundamental) research. For many years SFI has only funded applied science, though recently seems to have shifted its emphasis a little bit in its latest strategic plan. Currently Ireland spends just 1.1% of its GDP on scientific research and development and SFI’s current exclusive focus on research aligned with industry that can be exploited for short-term commercial gain) is making life very difficult for those in working in “blue skies” areas which are largely those that dras young people into science, and has consequently driven many researchers in such areas abroad, to the great detriment of Ireland’s standing in the international scientific community.

Here is an excerpt from an old post explaining what I think about the current approach:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors, venture capitalists of some sort, or perhaps through some form of National Investment Bank. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research.

SFI recently announced a new strategy, to cover the period up to 2025, with plans for 15% annual rises that will boost the agency’s grant spending — the greater part of the SFI budget — from €200 million in 2020 to €376 million by 2025. Much of this is focused in top-down manner on specific programmes and research centres but there is at least an acknowledgement of the need to support basic research, including an allocation of €11 million in 2021 for early career researchers. The overall aim is to increase the overall R&D spend from 1.1% of gross domestic product, well below the European average of 2.2%, to 2.5% by 2025. I hope these commitments will be carried forward into the new organization.

The Irish Research Council funds research in all areas, not exclusively applied science, so what little jam it has is spread very thinly. Applying for IRC funding is a lottery, with very few winners and the vast majority rejected without even cursory feedback.

There are two main worries about the fate of IRC in the merger merger. One is that research in arts & humanities will suffer as a result of being lumped in with science, and the other is that the culture of short-termism will be adopted so the small amount of basic research that the IRC currently funds will be sacrificed on the altar of quick commercial gain.

There is a welcome emphasis in the Impact 2030 document on early career researchers, especially at doctoral level where it is currently difficult to find funding for excellent graduate students. It has to be said though that there are problems in this area which are much wider than the shortage of appropriate schemes. The cost of living in Ireland is such that PhD stipends are inadequate to provide an adequate quality of life, especially in the Dublin area. The same goes for postdoctoral salaries which make it difficult to recruit postdocs from elsewhere in Europe.

Another crucial difficulty is the complete lack of funding for Master’s degrees, for many an essential bridge from undergraduate to research degrees. Many of our best graduates leave for European countries where a Master’s degree is free (and may even attract a stipend) and it is then difficult to entice them back.

There’s no question that the current lack of opportunity, low salaries, high living costs and the availability of far better opportunities elsewhere is leading to a net exodus of young research talent from Ireland. Whether any of this will change with Impact 2030 remains to be seen, but at least it doesn’t propose an Irish version of the dreaded Research Excellence Framework!

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

Posted in Football, LGBT with tags , , , on May 17, 2022 by telescoper

Today is May 17th which means that it is International Day Against Homophobia Transphobia and Biphobia, This is a worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities and a chance to show solidarity against bigotry and intolerance.

I noticed yesterday that Jake Daniels of Blackpool (who is just 17) yesterday became the first professional footballer in the UK to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu did 32 years ago. It’s a shame that we live in a world in which such an announcement makes headlines, but we do. There are undoubtedly many gay professional footballers, but there is also a great deal of prejudice in the world of football. Jake Daniels made a very courageous decision and I congratulate him for it and wish him all the best. I hope his teammates and the fans of Blackpool give him the support he deserves.

Research Excellence in Physics

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education, Science Politics on May 16, 2022 by telescoper

For no other reason that I was a bit bored watching the FA Cup Final on Saturday I decided to construct an alternative to the Research Excellence Framework rankings for Physics produced by the Times Higher last week.

The table below shows for each Unit of Assessment (UoA):  the Times Higher rank;  the number of Full-Time Equivalent staff submitted;  the overall percentage of the submission rated  4*;  and the number of FTE’s worth of 4* stuff (final column), by which the institutions are sorted. The logic for this – insofar as there is any – is that the amount of money allocated is probably going to be more strongly weighted to 4* (though not perhaps the 100% I am effectively assuming) than the GPA used in the Times Higher.

1. University of Oxford 9= 171.3 57 97.6
2. University of Cambridge 3 148.2 64 94.8
3. Imperial College 18= 130.1 49 63.7
4. University of Edinburgh 13= 118.0 51 60.2
5. University of Manchester 2 87 66 57.4
6. University College London 24= 112.5 42 47.3
7. University of Durham 23 84.2 45 37.9
8. University of Nottingham 7 63.9 59 37.7
9. University of Warwick 20 79.2 47 37.2
10. University of Birmingham 4 55.2 66 36.4
11. University of Bristol 5 54.1 61 33.0
12. University of Glasgow 12 58.2 53 30.8
13. University of York 13= 59.9 51 30.5
14. University of Lancaster 21 56.1 46 25.8
15. University of Strathclyde 13= 46.7 52 24.3
16. Cardiff University 18= 52.2 46 24.0
17. University of Exeter 22 49.4 48 23.7
18. University of Sheffield 1 34.7 65 22.5
19. University of St Andrews 8 40.8 55 22.4
20. University of Liverpool 16 44.4 49 21.7
21. University of Leeds 9= 34 53 18.0
22. University of Sussex 26 42.7 42 17.9
23. The University of Bath 24= 38.8 42 16.3
24. Queen’s University of Belfast 31 49.7 32 15.9
25. Queen Mary University of London 28= 48 33 15.8
26, University of Southampton 27 41.7 38 15.8
27. The Open University 32= 41.8 36 15.0
28. University of Hertfordshire 38 42 32 13.4
29. Liverpool John Moores University 17 25.8 50 12.9
30. Heriot-Watt University 9= 21 55 11.6
31. King’s College London 28= 33.9 34 11.5
32. University of Portsmouth 6 19.8 58 11.5
33. University of Leicester 35= 34.3 28 9.6
34. University of Surrey 35= 30.6 31 9.5
35. Swansea University 32= 25.2 32 8.0
36. Royal Holloway and Bedford New College 35= 19.1 36 6.9
37. University of Central Lancashire 39 19.3 25 4.8
38. Loughborough University 40 19.8 22 4.4
39. University of Keele 32= 9 38 3.4
40. The University of Hull 30 11 28 3.1
41. University of Lincoln 43 15.2 16 2.4
42.The University of Kent 41 19 12 2.3
43. Aberystwyth University 44 18.2 7 1.3
44. University of the West of Scotland 42 8 11 0.9

Using this method to order institutions produces a list which clearly correlates with the Times Higher ordering – the Spearman rank correlation coefficient is + 0.75 – but there are also some big differences. For example, Oxford (=9th in the Times Higher) and Cambridge (3rd) come out 1st and 2nd with Imperial (=18th in the Times Higher) moving up to 3rd place. Edinburgh moves up from =13th to 4th. The top ranked UoA in the Times Higher table is Sheffield, which drops to 18th in this table. Portsmouth (6th in the Times Higher) drops to 32nd in this version. And so on.

Of course you shouldn’t take this seriously at all. The lesson -if there is one – is that the use of the Research Excellence Framework results to produce rankings is a bit arbitrary, to say the least…

Notes on Eurovision

Posted in Biographical, Music, Politics with tags , , , , on May 15, 2022 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise Ukraine won last night’s Eurovision song contest after collecting a huge dollop of the televotes. After the jury votes, the United Kingdom’s entry was in the lead which surprised me because I thought it wasn’t much of a song at all. I’ve never been very good at picking the tunes that do well though. I didn’t like Ukraine’s entry – Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra – much either, but obviously there are special circumstances this year and I’m not at all sorry that they won.

In fact I thought the best song – and the best singer – by a long way was the Lithuanian entry sung by Monika Liu, who held the stage brilliantly by standing there and singing, without any fancy staging. She finished a disappointing 14th.

Monika Liu

Other entries I enjoyed were: Spain, catchy dance number with excellent choreography that finished 3rd; Moldova, an energetic performance full of humour (7th); and Norway, whose entry Give that Wolf a Banana was enjoyably deranged (10th). The less said about the other entries the better. I’m still as baffled by how Sam Ryder’s entry for the UK, Space Man, did so well in the jury votes as I am that Lithuania did so badly there, but there you go. What do I know?

I’ll state without comment that the Ukrainian jury gave a maximum douze points to the United Kingdom, but in return the UK jury gave Ukraine nil points

Anyway, three things struck me as I sipped my wine and watched the show:

  1. Ironically the Opera on the radio last night was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which is about a sixteenth century song contest that resembles the Eurovision versiononly in the length of time it goes on for. Perhaps someone should write a modern music drama called Die Meistersinger von Eurovision?
  2. I think the Research Excellence Framework would be much more fun if it were done like the Eurovision Song Contest. Each University regardless of size could be given the same distribution of scores to allocate to the others (but not itself). I can see interesting patterns emerging during that!
  3. When I was formally presented with my DPhil in the summer of 1989, the graduation ceremony took place on the same stage (at the Brighton Centre) on which Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with their song Waterloo.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff on May 14, 2022 by telescoper

The last couple of days have been very busy but at last I’ve got time to announce a new publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics! This one is the 5th paper in Volume 5 (2022) and the 53rd in all. It was published on Thursday in fact but I’ve only just found time to mention it here.

The latest publication is entitled “Statistical Uncertainties of the NDW=1 QCD Axion Mass Window from Topological Defects” and is written by Sebastian Hoof & Jana Riess of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Germany and David Marsh of King’s College London.

This paper is in the Cosmology and Nongalactic Astrophysics folder (cross-listed on arXiv from High-Energy Physics).

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the abstract:


You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the arXiv version of the paper here.

P.S. We have quite a number of papers out there waiting for revised versions to be submitted. I get the feeling that everyone is very busy these days. Hopefully as we emerge from the pandemic things will improve.

M87: Ring or Artefact?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 13, 2022 by telescoper

Following on from yesterday’s post here is an arXiv preprint that I’ve only just seen, though it was submitted on Tuesday 10th May, ahead of yesterday’s announcement about Sagittarius A*. It says inside the manuscript (though not in the arXiv entry) that it was accepted for publication in ApJ on 5th May, though it has not yet appeared there.

The abstract is:

We report our independent image reconstruction of the M 87 from the public data of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaborators (EHTC). Our result is different from the image published by the EHTC. Our analysis shows that (a) the structure at 230 GHz is consistent with those of lower frequency VLBI observations, (b) the jet structure is evident at 230 GHz extending from the core to a few mas, though the intensity rapidly decreases along the axis, and (c) the unresolved core is resolved into bright three features presumably showing an initial jet with a wide opening angle of about 70 deg. The ring-like structures of the EHTC can be created not only from the public data, but also from the simulated data of a point image. Also, the rings are very sensitive to the FOV size. The u-v coverage of EHT lack about 40 micro-asec fringe spacings. Combining with a very narrow FOV, it created the 40 micro-asec ring structure. We conclude that the absence of the jet and the presence of the ring in the EHTC result are both artifacts owing to the narrow FOV setting and the u-v data sampling bias effect of the EHT array. Because the EHTC’s simulations only take into account the reproduction of the input image models, and not those of the input noise models, their optimal parameters can enhance the effects of sampling bias and produce artifacts such as the 40 micro-asec ring structure, rather than reproducing the correct image.

I draw your attention to the sentence “The ring-like structures of the EHTC can be created not only from the public data, but also from the simulated data of a point image”. In other words the authors (Miyoshi, Kato and Makino) are saying that the ring-like structure in the now-iconic image could be an artefact of the image reconstruction process as they can apparently be produced by a point source.

From the manuscript itself:

The EHTC conducted various surveys, but their methods were not objective and biased towards their desires from the very beginning of their analysis. They also failed to perform the basic data checking that VLBI experts always do.

That’s very blunt. The plot thickens!

It’s a lengthy paper and I haven’t gone through it in detail. Comments from experts are welcome through the box below.

Our own Galactic Black Hole

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 12, 2022 by telescoper

As I mentioned a while ago the Event Horizon Telescope team held a press conference this afternoon and to nobody’s surprise they used it announce an image of the (shadow of the event horizon around the) black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

Here it is:

You can read the full press release here.

You may recall a great deal of excitement about three years ago concerning the imaging of the “shadow” of the event horizon of the black hole in the centre of the galaxy M87. The question I was asked most frequently back then is that there’s a much closer black hole in the centre of our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, so why wasn’t that imaged first?

It it true is that the black hole in the centre of M87 is ~103 times further away from us than the black hole in the centre of the Milky Way – known to its friends as Sagittarius A* or SgrA* for short – but is also ~103 times more massive, so its Schwarzschild radius is ~103 times larger. In terms of angular resolution, therefore, the observational challenge of imaging the event horizon is similar in the two cases. However, in the the case of the Milky Way’s black hole the timescales involved are much shorter than in M87 and there is a greater level of obscuration along the line of sight. That’s why it took longer to produce the image.

It’s a very difficult observation of course and I’m not sure of the significance of the “lumps” you can see, but the dark region in the centre is what the image is really about and that seems to be exactly the predicted size. The resolution is about 20 microarcseconds. Congratulations to the Event Horizon Telescope team!

If you’re interested in learning more about how this image was made I recommend this short video:

REF 2021 Results and Ranking

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on May 12, 2022 by telescoper

The results of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 have now been published. You can find them all here at the REF’s own website because they are presented there in a much more informative way than the half-baked “rankings” favoured by, e.g., The Times Higher.

To give some background: the overall REF score for a Unit of Assessment (UoA; usually a Department or School) is obtained by adding three different components: outputs (quality of research papers); impact (referring to the impact beyond academia); and environment (which measures such things as grant income, numbers of PhD students and general infrastructure). Scores are assigned to these categories, e.g. for submitted outputs on a scale of 4* (world-leading), 3* (internationally excellent), 2* (internationally recognized), 1* (nationally recognized) and unclassified. Similar star ratings are applied to the impact and environment. These are weighted at 60%, 25% and 15% respectively in the current incarnation of REF.

You can find further discussion of the REF submission rules, especially concerning changes with respect to 2014, here.

The way the star ratings are often reported is via a Grade Point Average reflecting the percentage of in each band. A hypothetical UoA that scored 100% in the top category would have a GPA of 4.0, for example. One that had 50% 4* and 50* 3* would be 3.5, and so on.

In the 2014 REF institutions were allowed to be selective in the number of staff submitted so the GPA wasn’t really a very appropriate measure: some institutions chose to submit only their very best research in order to get a high GPA. The funding allocated as a result of REF turned out to be highly weighted towards 4* so this was a sensible strategy for them, but it made the simple GPA-based rankings even more meaningless than usual. That didn’t stop e.g. The Times Higher making such rankings though.

This time the rules on selection are stricter so the GPA is arguably more relevant, though many institutions have achieved selectivity anyway by moving certain staff onto teaching-only contracts. Staff on such contracts do not have to be submitted. I note that the main REF website does not use the GPA at all but instead gives profiles like this:

I show the example of Sussex because of my bad memories of the last REF (the 2014 exercise). I had moved to Sussex in 2013 at which point preparations were not well advanced and although everyone concerned worked very hard to put together the best submission for Physics & Astronomy we had to face the problem that our staff numbers had grown significantly in 2013 response to an increase in student numbers. While new staff could bring publications with them they couldn’t bring impact or environment, and while the outputs scored well the latter two categories didn’t so the Department of Physics & Astronomy did poorly in the ensuing rankings.

It must be said however that the primary purpose of the REF (allegedly) is to allocate blocks of funding- the so-called QR funding – to support research in the UoA concerned and while the GPA at Sussex was disappointing the fact that the money depends on the number of staff submitted meant that we got a substantial increase in QR dosh. Note further that the formula for allocation of funds to 4*, 3*, etc is not even specified in advance of the exercise: it is likely to be highly concentrated on research graded 4* and that the funding formula will probably different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A ranking in terms of money earned is likely to look rather different from one based on GPA.

Another, even more fundamental, problem with the GPA is that the scores are so close together that the differences are of doubtful significance. In the Physics UoA, for example, the gap between top GPA (Sheffield) and 5th place (Bristol) is just 0.05 (3.65 versus 3.60) respectively. I see also that Cardiff is ranked equal 18th (with Imperial College) on a GPA of 3.45.

I say these things just to illustrate how much more subtle the criteria for success are compared to a simple GPA. It’s even hard to tell on an objective basis who to congratulate and who to commiserate.

Anyway, back to Sussex I see that Physics & Astronomy has done far better on environment and impact than last time round and the outputs (95% of which are either 4* or 3*) are comparable to last time (96%) so by those measures they have done well although this might not be reflected in a GPA-based ranking. Sussex is 26th in the rankings with a GPA of 3.35, if you’re interested, which is better than last time, though they will probably be disappointed at the presence of 2* elements in their profile.

Indeed, looking through the Physics list I can’t see any UoA that has a lower GPA this time than last time. The pot of money to be allocated for QR funding is fixed so if every UoA does better that doesn’t mean every UoA gets more money; some institutions will no doubt find that their improved GPA is accompanied by a cut in QR funding.

I’ll end by re-iterating that, having moved to Ireland in 2017, I’m very glad to be out of the path of the bureaucratic juggernaut that is the REF. In its first incarnations (as the Research Assessment Exercise) it did fulfil a useful purpose and did, I believe, improve the quality of UK research. Since then, however, it has become an industry that is largely self-serving. I quote from an article in the Times Higher itself:

The allocation of QR funding could be done in a much simpler and fairer way but the REF is now such a huge edifice it will resist being replaced by something smaller. No doubt before long the staff who spent so much time preparing for REF 2021 will start work on the next exercise. And so it goes on.

The changes in ranking that now occur from exercise to exercise are generally small in magnitude and in number. In other words, huge effort and cost are being invested to discover less and less information.

P.S. For completeness I should say that I am glad we don’t have an equivalent of the REF here in Ireland, we don’t have an equivalent of the QR funding either. This latter is a serious problem for the sustainability of research in third-level institutions, and it is not addressed at all in the recent proposals for reform.

The Time of the Pandemic

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Covid-19, Science Politics, Talks and Reviews with tags , , , , on May 11, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve posted before about the way the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time and today I’ve experienced another example because I was reminded that it was on this day (11th May) last year that I received my first shot of Covid-19 vaccine.

It’s very hard for me to accept that it was just one year ago that I was waiting in City West to get my injection as it seems in my memory further back than that in my memory. It’s not only how long ago things happened, but also even the sequence of events that has become muddled. I wonder how long it will take to restore any normal sense of these things?

Anyway, I’ve just updated the daily statistics on this blog and although case numbers remain relatively high they do seem to be falling steadily and things do seem to be under control in terms of hospital admissions and deaths. Only 254 people are in hospital with Covid-19 today and the trend is downward.

Maybe the time of the pandemic is drawing to a close?

Further evidence that things may be getting back to normal is that I’m giving the first in-person research talk I’ve done since before the pandemic started at the Irish Theoretical Physics Meeting (ITP22) at the end of this month in Dublin (at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, to be precise). I’m looking forward to giving a talk in the same room as real people. I’m even top of the bill (though only thanks to alphabetical order):

I’ve only got a 30-minute slot so I hope my sense of the passage of time returns at least to the extent that I keep to schedule. My PhD student is travelling to Newcastle next week to give her first ever conference talk at the UK Cosmology Meeting. Hers is a 5-minute talk, which is quite a difficult thing to do well, but I have every confidence it will be excellent.

And talking of research, I see that tomorrow sees the public announcement of the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework. Universities have had their results since the start of the week but they are embargoed until tomorrow, no doubt to allow PR people to do their work. I’ll probably post a reaction tomorrow, but for now I’ll just send best wishes to colleagues in the UK – especially in Cardiff and Sussex – who are waiting anxiously hoping for a successful outcome and say that I’m very happy to be here in Ireland, out of the path of that particular bureaucratic juggernaut.